“While we’re here talking, someone else is O.D.ing.” – Ginger Rosela, left.

Prince Frederick, MD – A five-hour session conducted by a panel comprised of leaders from several Maryland communities yielded much rhetoric on the subject of opioid addiction. The Maryland Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force held the third of its six regional summits Wednesday, April 29 at the College of Southern Maryland’s Prince Frederick campus.

If there was a consensus, then most agreed—yes, Southern Maryland has a serious drug problem and no, there isn’t enough funding available to remedy the problem.
“This is a public health issue,” declared Delegate Anthony J. “Tony” O’Donnell [R – District 29C]. “We’ve seen this issue get worse and worse.”

“There are a lot of forces working against us,” said Delegate Mark N. Fisher [R – District 27C], who cited attempts to gain approval for mandating the use of technology for opioid monitoring as a prime example of legislation opposed by the pharmaceutical lobby.  Fisher said Maryland was in need of a measure similar to the Mandatory Seatbelt Law for dealing with the opioid crisis.

Both O’Donnell and Fisher praised Governor Larry Hogan for prioritizing solutions for the heroin and opioid crisis.

The chairman of the task force, Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford, did not attend the summit due to the ongoing unrest in Baltimore City. St. Mary’s County Sheriff Tim Cameron [R], a task force member, chaired the session. Cameron noted the “dramatic rise in heroin” in the three Southern Maryland counties.

As individuals have become addicted to prescription opiates, the legal drugs have become pricier, leading the users to often purchase heroin, an illegal drug that is cheaper to buy from drug dealers. The often lethal use of heroin—now considered more potent than ever—has led to a spike in overdose (O.D.) deaths.

The three counties’ commissioners’ presidents spoke about the monetary challenges of fighting the drug scourge.

Calvert County Commissioners’ President Steve Weems [R – At Large] said the misuse of opioids and its lethal consequences has reached “epic proportions” in the county with drug and alcohol-intoxicated deaths outpacing homicides. Weems stated the fatalities include individuals using both legal and illegal drugs. The county’s medical professionals, Weems noted, are reevaluating procedures for dispensing the legal medications.

“I struggle with where we will find the funding,” said Weems of the fiscal note that comes from providing treatment programs for economically challenged residents.
Charles County Commissioners’ President Peter Murphy [D] also confirmed his county is dealing with several hundreds of new addictions annually and while some of those involve heroin, the potent substance “is very often not the first drug.” Noting the variety of reasons individuals have for using drugs, Murphy declared “it’s hard for government to get its hands around that.”

Murphy provided the task force with some good news about the county’s Jude House, a facility that has changed its focus and now runs an intense treatment program with an impressive success rate. “They [clients] come out clean, we get them job-ready and help find housing,” said Murphy.

“I don’t think we will ever eradicate drugs,” said St. Mary’s County Commissioners’ President Randy Guy [R], who spoke about his own experience several years ago as a deputy sheriff doing undercover work on drug cases. Guy explained that St. Mary’s has dedicated nearly $4 million in state and federal grant funding to fight the drug problem with treatment, recovery and support.

Another St. Mary’s County commissioner, John O’Connor [R -3rd District], told the task force about a local drug summit in the county that was held last year and drew approximately 600 people. “Whatever funding it takes,” said O’Connor, who added, “I don’t want to see our citizens suffer anymore.” Of particular concern to O’Connor were veteran combat soldiers who return to the U.S. with physical and mental challenges that lead to drug addictions. 

Officials from all three counties have been mounting an offensive on the front end of the problem with successful unused prescription medication drop-off programs.
O’Connor was the first of several speakers to criticize the Maryland General Assembly for decriminalizing marijuana in 2014. During testimony from the region’s law enforcement officials, St. Mary’s County State’s Attorney Richard Fritz [R] called the civil fine now levied against marijuana users in Maryland “laughable. I still believe marijuana is a gateway drug.”

Fritz, Calvert State’s Attorney Laura Martin [R] and Calvert Sheriff Mike Evans [R] were all critical of legislation that was proposed during the recently concluded session that would have shifting the burden of proof from property owners to the state in asset forfeiture proceedings. Presently, law enforcement officers are essentially able to take property they feel was involved in a crime and force the property owner to spend their time and money to get it back by going to court by proving them wrong. The measure never made it out of committee. All three local officials affirmed that the seized assets are being used to fund resources to help in the fight against drug abuse.

Martin told the task force that two-thirds of the cases her office prosecutes are drug-related. The Calvert State’s Attorney’s Office, said Martin, is focusing its attention on the prosecution of drug dealers. Noting that Calvert has its share of high-profit drug peddlers, Martin stated that many of the career pushers who are convicted “will spend a quarter of their sentence in jail.”

Martin and Fritz agreed that more emphasis needs to be placed on drug rehabilitation programs being offered in detention centers and penitentiaries.
Health officials who spoke at the session affirmed that a holistic approach to the crisis is being taken. Calvert County Health Officer Dr. Laurence Polsky indicated the county’s health department has interacted with several local agencies, is collaborating with the public school system and is encouraging local physicians to rethink their philosophy on pain management.

The most dramatic testimony was delivered by parents who have lost young adult children to drug addiction. They explained that their children were not the prototype drug abusers. Debbie Mister of the Calvert Alliance Against Substance Abuse told the task force her only daughter had received her master’s degree two weeks before she succumbed to an opiod overdose.

“While we’re here talking, someone else is O.D.ing,” said Ginger Rosela of Owings, whose son, Jacob Paddy died from a heroin overdose in 2013. Rosela’s son began using heroin after the opioids he was hooked on became unaffordable.

“The stories are heartbreaking,” said Emily Harman, who used part of her testimony to advocate for non-random, non-punitive drug testing for students. “This gives students the ability not to give into peer pressure.”

Cameron said at the meeting’s conclusion that testimony may still be submitted in writing to the task force through Lt. Governor Rutherford’s web site. The link is http://governor.maryland.gov/ltgovernor/home/lt-governor-boyd-k-rutherford/

Contact Marty Madden at marty.madden@thebaynet.com